UP EXPERT OPINION: Can Messi replicate Maradona’s Mexico magic?

Posted on November 15, 2022

The Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship's Professor Adekeye Adebajo looks ahead to the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and reflects on the legacy of Argentina's Diego Maradona as the Argentine team looks to secure a tournament victory. 

The football World Cup starting in Qatar next Sunday (with a reported $229bn spent on infrastructure) will be the first in 40 years not to feature one of the greatest footballers in history as a superstar or exuberant fan.

Argentina’s Diego Maradona died two years ago this month at the age of 60. His sublime performances in leading Argentina to the 1986 World Cup trophy are the stuff of legend.

Unlike Maradona, Argentina’s current talisman, Lionel Messi, grew up largely in the sheltered environment of Spanish giants, Barcelona’s academy. His embrace by Argentinians has therefore never been as symbiotic as Maradona’s: a true son of the soil who delivered World Cup victory and restored national pride.

Maradona was born in the poverty-stricken Buenos Aires shanty town of Villa Fiorito on October 30 1960. His father, Diego Sr, was a bone-meat factory worker of Indian stock, while his homemaker mother “Doňa Tota” ensured a strong Roman Catholic upbringing. Football provided the young boy’s escape from poverty. He scored 144 goals in 156 matches for Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, before moving to Barcelona in 1982 for a world record £5m fee.

There he won the Copa del Rey, scoring 38 goals in two seasons. In 1984, he moved to Napoli in another world record £6.9m transfer. Naples is in Italy’s poorer south, and proved a better fit for Maradona. Here he reached his peak during six glorious years in which he won league titles in 1987 and 1990 and the Uefa Cup in 1989. Maradona scored 259 goals in 491 career club matches.

His first World Cup in Spain in 1982 ended in disgrace when he was sent off for kicking a player in the loss to archrival Brazil. Though a crushing experience, the tournament made him more determined to succeed. The 1986 World Cup in Mexico cemented Maradona’s legend in football’s Pantheon. In the quarterfinal against England he famously showed both his genius and his deviousness. Feigning to head the ball, he instead fisted it into the net without the referee seeing. He later attributed the miraculous goal to “the hand of God”.

Moments later Maradona set off on a dazzling slalom run in which he dribbled past six England players before scoring what a Fifa poll later voted as “the goal of the century”. He was desperate to avenge Argentina’s loss to Britain in the 1982 Falklands War. Maradona scored two more spectacular goals against Belgium in the semifinals before providing the crucial assist that saw the “Albicelestes” overcome Germany in the final.  

Having become the world’s first global superstar in the multimedia age, Maradona found fame suffocating. His unremitting two decade philandering and passion for sports cars eventually culminated in cocaine and alcohol addiction. His fall from grace came at the 1994 World Cup in the US, when he was expelled from the tournament for using the performance-enhancing drug ephedrine.

While coaching unfashionable teams in Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico, Maradona had become sickly. The death of his parents by 2015 denied him the nonjudgmental anchors who had tried to keep him from the path of perdition. He eventually succumbed to cardiac arrest after brain surgery. His long-suffering and devoted wife Claudia (with whom he had two daughters) had filed for divorce in 2003 after 20 frustrating years of marriage in which her husband reportedly fathered nine other children.

A 35-year old Messi is undoubtedly the world’s greatest player of his generation, and Qatar will be his last chance to win a World Cup, having lost a final in Brazil in 2014. The world wonders whether Argentina’s current number 10 can finally replicate the heroics of his idol during that long, hot, glorious Mexican summer 36 years ago.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in Business Day on 13 November 2022.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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